The second half of my very Umphrey day started in the freezing snow/rain outside of the Nokia Theater in Times Square. In my brief time living in Manhattan I’ve come to enjoy the Nokia for a number of reasons, such as its convenient location and the superb job the sound crew seems to do with every band I’ve seen there. On this night, my favorite feature of the Nokia was the large overhang outside the doors, which afforded those of us who had decided to brave the weather in order to get there before the doors opened some small measure of protection from the elements. The wind was still whipping through the side streets however, so we devoted/crazy fans huddled together and waited in the wind and sleet until the doors opened.
Even though I had just spent the afternoon 10 feet away from the band, I still wanted to make sure I had a spot on the rail for this concert (and for those of you who know me personally, yes, even though I’m taller than every other person at most shows I still feel the need to stand in the very front. Short people can cry me a river). As we waited for the opener to take the stage, I noticed that the theater wasn’t filling up very quickly. Jam bands, unless they are national music icons, have never been as big a draw in NYC as they are in the south and Midwest, a trend that is slowly changing but is still noticeable in concert attendance. Between this trend and the horrible weather, I began to fear what the final turnout might be and what kind of message that would send to the band. Umphreys didn’t stop in NYC on their last swing through the east coast before this one, and I didn’t want the city to give them any further motivation to skip us again.
I put those fears in my back pocket as the opener, Eric Krasno and Chapter 2, took the stage. I had never heard of the group before, and while they made a strong first impression, they also didn’t really do anything to make themselves sound memorable. Their sound falls somewhere between Robert Randolph and Galactic, but never really developed into something unique. Eric Krasno, the guitarist, was definitely skilled and their vocalist, Nigel Hall, has a great voice that caught my ear when he sang (a lot of their material was instrumental). Also, I couldn’t stop being reminded of WWE star Kofi Kingston whenever I looked up at their bass player, which I’ll consider a positive because Kofi Kingston is f’ing awesome. They played a upbeat, gospel-style cover of ‘Get Back’ which started out with amazing energy and a huge reaction from the crowd, but somehow the chorus just died more and more every time they played it, and by the end I was just glad the song was over, which was a shame considering the momentum it started with.
I turned around after Chapter 2’s set to see if the crowd had grown during the opener, and thankfully things had filled out to a healthy level. The downside of this was that people began trying to push their way to the rail that I had been camping, without a bathroom or beer break, for about two hours. Now I learned long ago that there will be douche bags at every general admission show I go to, no matter what the genre or band, and that standing one’s ground doesn’t make one an asshole. So when a late-comer asked if I could make room for him and his lady friend, I didn’t have any qualms about telling him that there was no way what he wanted was going to happen.
After fending off the newly acquired masses and a bit more waiting, Umphrey’s finally took the stage with surprisingly little fan fair. For previous shows they’ve usually turned the PA way up and blasted an entrance theme for the band, but this time they didn’t do anything dramatic or even turn the lights down. They simply walked out during a song I couldn’t even make out over the din of the crowd and picked up their instruments. None of this is a complaint; it just struck me as a deviation from their norm. Maybe their backing orchestra got stuck in Secaucus, who knows.
I’ve been to a fair number of Umphrey’s shows in the past, between festivals, headlining gigs, acoustic 1-offs, and shared billings. Their best show in my mind will always be the first show in which I saw them perform, but that aside, this night might have been the most polished and tight I’ve seen the band yet. I’ve always told non-fans that Umphrey’s won’t piss off listeners who hate jam bands because of the endless, self-important musical tangents they drag the crowd through (see: Phish). Umphrey’s jams are much more cohesive and practiced than what you’ll see from other bands in the genre. That isn’t to take away from Umphrey’s improv skills, because the vast majority of their ‘jam’ material is still improvised, they simply communicate much more frequently and clearly on stage with each other than other bands do. Educated fans can actually catch and interpret the signals the band members are giving each other, or see the moments mid-jam when they’re talking to each other through their in-ear monitors.
The result is that the jams have clear direction and flow to them, keeping the audience engaged while the band is still free to explore new territory in each song. That isn’t to say that each jam is good; the band is in fact still made up of humans, but you never feel like band has lost focus or run out of ideas. On this night Umphrey’s jam-game was definitely the best I’ve seen so far. They also tried out some of their new compositions, some of which I enjoyed and some of which I feel like they need to go back to the drawing board with. ‘Booth Love’, a new, very laid back tune that they sandwiched in the middle of the prog-metal ‘Wizard’s Burial Ground’ needs to be developed a bit more, while another new tune ‘Conduit’ sounded much more complete.
Umphrey’s sound has and always be dominated by its dual guitar attack. In the past, Jake Cinninger has been the dominating member of the duo, grabbing attention with his impressive speed and stunt-guitar antics. However on this night lead vocalist Brendan Bayliss really stood out in my mind. He took way more of the solos than I was used to, and of course he dominated all of them. There’s always been a tacit (sometimes less tacit) battle between the fans about who the better player is, and I’m glad on this tour that Brendon is being given more opportunities to show off his equally impressive skills compared to his flashier counterpart.
A common criticism of progressive rock is that artists lose themselves in their technicality and fail to produce anything that an audience can enjoy. I can safely say that Umphrey’s has never suffered from this problem, and continues to distance themselves from this stereotype with every performance. I have no problem coming down on progressive rock bands who forget than they are musicians and not clinicians, but it’s clear in Umphrey’s song writing as well as their jams that technicality is only one attribute of their style. Their creativity brings them far beyond both progressive rock and jam band stereotypes into a new area that is entirely their own. Their melodies are catchy, their lyrics add layers of meaning instead of taking up space in the mix, and when they do step on the prog gas pedal they don’t leave the audience in the dust. If bad, over technical prog makes you feel like a band has shoved you off a musical cliff, consider Umphreys Mcgee your parachute, allowing you to free fall as long as it’s enjoyable but making sure you touch down safely, leaving you wanting another ride as soon as they’ll let you back on the plane.
Below you can find some of the many many photos I took during the show. I won’t post all of them because most of them didn’t come out too clearly (I blame my roommate’s camera for this, he needs to invest in some better hardware for me to steal).
Highlights of their set for me were ‘All in Time’ (which is always a great way to open a show), ‘Wizard’s Burial Ground’ (which I had heard previously a few years ago, and there was clear improvement on the solos and unison runs from the past performance), and ‘Nemo’s Fat Bottomed Good Times’. ‘Nemo’ is an original Umphrey’s song, which the band has taken to integrating with Led Zeppelin’s ‘Good Time’s Band Times’ and Queen’s ‘Fat Bottom Girls’ for a jam/medley/whatever with fantastic results. I also have to thank the band for replacing their original encore, ‘Ringo’, which I’ve heard about 80000000 times, with the much proggier and energetic ‘Mulche’s Odysssey’. That’s another awesome thing about Umphreys, is that the set list a crowd member might catch after a show will look nothing like what was actually played that night. The band simply goes with whatever whims they are feeling and substitutes tunes as necessary.
Speaking of catching things, I did manage to snag one of Andy’s sticks, adding another piece to my Umphrey’s collection. With a few more pieces I’ll be able to complete my UmFrankenstein. (sorry, I’m a fan boy. You should have been able to tell this by now).
All in all it was a day a fan can only dream of. I got to witness both an intimate performance the style of which few fans of any band will ever get to experience, and then later than evening was able to enjoy the full concert experience with a few thousand of my fellow UmFreaks. If you are fortunate enough to see that Umphrey’s is going to be visiting your town, even if you aren’t a fan, take a leap of faith and check them out. If you’re new to progressive rock or jam bands, there are few/no other bands that will give you such a positive impression of both genres. And if you consider yourself an experienced jam or progressive rocker, then you’re stupid and should know the band already. Shame on you.
Below you can find the set list, as well as some links (as legal as I could find) to examples of the tunes they played that night. Prog fan, jam band fan, music fan, whatever, I urge you to check them out.
All In Time > “Jimmy Stewart”* -> Get In the Van > All In Time, Conduit, Hurt Bird Bath > Tribute to the Spinal Shaft -> Hurt Bird Bath, Turn & Dub
JaJunk, Nemo’s Fat Bottomed Good Times, August, Resolution > Push the Pig jam** > Resolution, Lisztomania$, Wizard Burial Ground > Booth Love > Wizard Burial Ground
* with lyrics
** with Hysteria tease
$ first time played, Phoenix